20? x 39: Taiwan

I have a question for you. If you landed in Taiwan for the first time, ready a spontaneous visit to see an old friend, would you know what to expect? Maybe a trip to Taipei and the 101 Tower, or perhaps some Asian cuisine. I didn’t have any idea, or plan, when I landed in southern Taiwan this June. I didn’t even know I’d landed four hours south of Taipei, safely in Kaohsiung near the Sky Tower. Even if I’d had an idea, Taiwan’s constant surprises left me ever more curious and thankful.

Arriving from Shanghai, I wondered if I could count Taiwan as another country toward my country count goal. Surprise number one: I can and I can’t. But I’ll get into that later. Because we must go now. Quickly, too, because Pearl (Pei-chia, Li) is waiting for me.

 

 

In this (surprise number two):

My host.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ha! I’ve never ridden a scooter with luggage before!

Pearl, a fellow Couchsurfer and a statistician-turned-math-teacher, showed me her school where I met students in their first year of high school. Once united with her mother, Anna (Hui-Feng, Tsai) who greeted me with a practiced “Welcome,” I was whisked away for three days of adventure. Around every corner were surprising ornate temples, canals and mangroves, mountains, railroad tracks and museums, tree houses nestled in banyan trees, traditional and night markets, and humble bridges with food vendor after another. All in just Tainan and Kaohsiung along southwestern Taiwan.

Southern Taiwan!

A note on Couchsurfing and hosting in general. Couchsurfing.com is a wonderful addition to humanity, period. It is filled with curious, tired and adventurous travelers meeting and hosting all over the world. I helped host Pearl before in Houston two years ago, coincidentally as I was beginning my own travels. This was my first time seeing both sides of Couchsurfing… things kinda came full circle for me and I like that. Since I now see the distance involved with “spontaneously visiting” Taiwan, especially from USA, I understand why Pearl said few US travelers follow through on their promise to visit someday. I was her first visitor from US (well, China). Even so, nachos and beer over a game of pool near Galveston Bay pales in comparison to how Pearl and her mother broke their backs to show me Tainan and Kaohsiung. I’m a little overwhelmed by their hospitality and can only say thanks to all who showed me the very best of Taiwan. We must go now, quickly, the next activity is waiting.

Surprise number 450. Bowling is bowling anywhere in the world, at least according to my n=2 sample size. Pearl’s friends Paul (Chen Ping, Hong), Lincoln (Lin-Shuan, Wang), Yuen (Yuen), and others took me to the local bowling joint and together with my new Taiwanese friends, I saw the highly-pocked lanes and damaged balls with finger holes much smaller than what I consider typical. If they were good on those lanes, which they were, imagine how they’d be in the States!

Over the next three days, we also went to the famous night markets, street vendors and flea markets, Fort Provincia’s Chihkan Tower, the Anping Tree House, the AWESOME Ten Drum nighttime steampunk-ish amusement park, several railroad and well-interpreted town museums including the “Connecting with the World” exhibition.

 

Well, can I count Taiwan toward my country count goal of 40 in 40 years or not? The answer is I can and I can’t. I will, because as far as I’m concerned, Taiwan is so different than China it holds no resemblance to the mainland. They only share the same language. Formosa’s diverse history in trading and management by the Dutch and friendship with Japan doesn’t make Taiwan seem Chinese at all. Yet I can’t count her, because – according to China – Taiwan is part of the Republic of China, just with a separate government. That’s slightly akin of Puerto Rico to USA, and why I did NOT count Puerto Rico as a country. As I understand it, Olympians cannot compete for Taiwan as the IOC does not rank Taiwan as independent (correct me if I’m wrong, and I hope to amend this post someday claiming her independent status). According to Thought Co, Taiwan is mostly her own country, filling just about all criteria to be independently sovereign, and I think her 23 million people  and expert exporters would agree. All this said, I received a passport stamp after flying international on what should have been a domestic flight from Shanghai. So… I’m counting it, but will add a question mark to the title of this story. Just in case?

The Mango. In season for my visit.

This is where I talk about food. Typically, I find this part about travel tedious to share with others. To me, Chinese food tastes the same in the US and China, as does Greece to home, etc. I’ll eat anything, and I’m not much for sharing the same stories everyone’s already heard about eating “strange” foods in other countries. They’re not strange, they’re foods. Also, in a large US city like Washington DC, where I currently reside, we are blessed to have Indian one night, Thai the next, Peruvian the night after that. Taiwan is the exception. Taiwan’s cuisine is a totally different experience. My God, the food. Never in my life have I had as many new foods than in those three days in Taiwan. I ate nothing I’d ever had before and everything – I repeat everything – I ate was new (and yummy delicious) to me. Duck hearts, sticky tofu, sloppy meatball dumplings with thick garlic sauce, pork and onion biscuits with beef soup, pork intestine, goose (I feel so bad for loving it so much), bamboo soup, mango sundaes, icey “cream” with Oreo (or beans, that’s right, beans, if you prefer) served with a side of fried mushrooms, fried leek dumplings and fish bones, a cup of gelatinous goo topped with a calm almond juice, an egg inside of an egg, and lots of unidentified objects on a stick from the night markets that make Taiwan, Taiwan. For beverages, I drank dunqua tea, wheat tea, milk tea, bubble tea, mango smoothies, homemade plum wine, and my very favorite, mum juice.

The one and only familiar thing I ate was corn. This was no ordinary ear of corn, however. It was the very corn from a thriving corn trade my hosting family relied on for their wellbeing. All the sudden, corn meant a whole lot more to me than just an ear or two we grab to serve with BBQ chicken in the states. This corn was important corn, just like the times I bought it roasted on the streets in Kenya, only better. This corn was served to me, the guest of honor, for breakfast. So there you have it. I don’t often talk about food, but when I do, I make sure it’s worth remembering.

I loved my time here. I love this place, and I hope to return to see the rest of the island, from Taipei down the eastern mountainous coast back to Kaohsiung to see my friends again. I love how this place loves night as much as day, and how the tapestry of history’s different rules and influences – from Dutch to Asian – are embraced here. I didn’t see beach destinations, tourist traps, or adventure hotspots. I’d like to think I saw life the way it is in Taiwan, forever with the memory of being so generously hosted. Taiwan is quite possibly the friendliest place in Asia, if for no other reason than to simply be so, and be happy. That’s my kind of place.

© 2017 Full Circle J. Productions, LLC – All Rights Reserved.

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